Making the Case: Explaining the Return on Investment (ROI) of Your Social Media Efforts

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” —Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.

When thinking about social media ROI, the quote above makes a lot of sense. Like Justice Stewart, I “know” social media engagement when I see it–whether it’s in the form of interactions on Twitter, comments on Facebook, or “likes” on LinkedIn–and I also recognize when it isn’t there. But “seeing” isn’t really enough. Because regardless of how much engagement I’m able to generate (or not), one question is always there.

“What does social media engagement even mean?”

In this post, I’ll answer this question by sharing best practices I use–most notably through Twitter–to measure and translate social media engagement. Granted, these approaches may not work for everyone, but I hope some of the broad concepts I share can be applied to fields beyond higher ed/alumni affairs.

What Do You Want to Measure?

In my “Rules of (Twitter) Engagement” post, I shared the benefits of using a tracking sheet to measure clickthroughs, retweets, and other interactions via social media. Along with this tracking mechanism, I also have an engagement spreadsheet which gauges how frequently alumni, my target audience, interact with me. This measurement tool is based on this VERY basic formula.

 1-2 social media touches a month=Minimal Engagement

 3-4 social media touches a month=Moderate Engagement

 5 or more social media touches a month=High Engagement

“Touches,” in my formula, is any Twitter-related contact an alumnus/a has with me in a given month. This includes everything from an alumnus retweeting a post to an alumna responding to one of my “Questions of the Week” with a tweet of her own. One limitation of this approach, I concede, is that these social media interactions are not “weighted” in any way; a favorited tweet is given the same “score” as an original tweet in response to a query, but this is a deficit I hope to rectify in the future.

Well before I adopted the approach above, my supervisor and I sat down to figure out what we wanted to measure and, more importantly, what we could measure. One thing we couldn’t gauge, for example, was alumni engagement via Facebook. We couldn’t determine, with any real accuracy, if our alumni were the ones who “liked” a post or if they, as opposed to another “fan,” were the ones checking out the article links we posted.

Therefore, the first step in determining social media ROI is deciding who, or what, you want to gather data on. There really isn’t any right or wrong answer, but the important thing to keep in mind, as I stated before, is to make sure that what’s important to you can be measured.

Collecting and Interpreting the Data

Once my boss and I decided what we wanted to track (in this case engagement with alumni who graduated before 1997–i.e., young alumni–and those who graduated after this date) I began to track interactions in earnest. Here’s a glimpse, with certain personal information omitted, of my alumni tracking sheet.

First Name Last Name Handle Program/Graduation Info Touches Status Category
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 3 Moderately Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 4 Moderately Engaged
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 4 Moderately Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 4 Moderately Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 4 Moderately Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 4 Moderately Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 4 Moderately Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 4 Moderately Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 5 Highly Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 5 Highly Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 5 Highly Engaged
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 5 Highly Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 5 Highly Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 5 Highly Engaged
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 5 Highly Engaged
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 6 Highly Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 6 Highly Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 8 Highly Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 10 Highly Engaged YA
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 10 Highly Engaged
First Name Last Name Twitter Handle Program 49 Highly Engaged

This information was, and still is, collected on a monthly basis and at the conclusion of each month I aggregate this data into the following report.

Young Alumni (YA) Engagement on Twitter Growth/Loss Over the Previous Month
Highly Engaged 35 ,+5
Moderately Engaged 36  ,-3
Minimally Engaged 118  ,-13
Total Number of YA Engaged 189 ,-11
Highest Number of Touches by a YA 53 First Name, Last Name
Total Number of Touches by HBS Alumni 713 (by 224 individual alumni)  ,+168
 (YA and 16 years + alumni)

With this report, I can assess overall alumni interactions via Twitter and fluctuations, for the better or for the worse, compared to previous months. This report is also helpful when explaining my social media efforts (i.e., exhibiting the ROI of my social media work) because I can say with confidence how engaged alumni are overall and how involved individual alumni are (since I collect contact information for each alumnus/a who has interacted with me). While this ROI exercise is far from perfect (e.g., it’s virtually impossible to determine how this social media engagement correlates with, let’s say, increased giving) it has helped me justify what I’m doing and why, most importantly, it matters.

Was this post helpful? Is there anything I missed? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Robert Bochnak manages social media for the Harvard Business School’s alumni office. He’s also the former writer and editor of GradMatters: The Blog for Tufts GSAS. 

Follow Robert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobertBoc.

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